A New Division of Labor? How Europe and America Can Work Together in the Middle East

By Zoé Nautré

Part 2: Europe Could Share Burdens in Middle East


The United States and the European Union need not only a unified vision of what the common challenges beyond reform in the Middle East are, but also an agreement as to why change is necessary. This requires a re-definition of common interests and a unified response to the current and future challenges in the region: bad governance; the provision of safe havens for terrorists; the deprivation of human, political, economic, and cultural rights and the failure to provide citizens with basic rights. The European Union and the United States are natural partners in addressing these issues and ensuring that universal rights are not perceived simply as a "Western export," but as inalienable rights for all people.

An additional challenge to any future collective approach should be noted: As the focus on reform in the Middle East has increased in recent years, Arab leaders have become much smarter in dealing with external pressure, allowing only limited political pluralism that does not affect the real distribution of power. The lack of trans-Atlantic coordination and communication towards the region has been manipulated by certain Arab regimes. External assistance has even had the negative effect -- by strengthening the security apparatus to monitor potential terrorists -- of helping to enhance the repressive capacities of the state in some cases. The fact is that policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic are happy to go along with this situation because it guarantees cooperation and stability in the short term. At the heart of this approach lies a deep skepticism regarding genuine democratic outcomes in the region and the extent to which Islamist parties in power can actually uphold so-called universal human values.

Can the EU and the US Afford to be Shortsighted?

It is in the national interests of the United States and the European Union member states to facilitate sustainable political and economic reforms and greater transparency and accountability in the long-term by supporting domestic reform movements in the region. Consequently, long-term interests such as democracy cannot be compromised at all times for short-term security interests and stability. The implementation of current policies that actually help to strengthen the repressive capacities of Arab states might be short-sighted and in need of re-evaluation.

Besides agreeing on strategic objectives and the need for honest dialogue on crucial issues, both the United States and the European Union need to assess the different assumptions behind their respective policies. Both policies are fundamentally different in their anticipated result. The EU objective is to assist in the build-up of civil society so that when the time is ripe for real democracy, the capacity will already be in place. In contrast, US policy calls for accelerated change. This approach holds that greater justice, accountability, and democracy are not generational challenges, but rather "natural" processes towards democracy that can be accelerated by making it a foreign assistance priority.

By assuming that US ideals and national interests had naturally merged, the Bush administration neglected to consider how this would be perceived in the region. External policies are not executed in a power vacuum and have serious repercussions. As a result, the Obama administration might have to acknowledge the limits of interest-driven foreign assistance and look at other avenues to promote democracy. Europeans, on the other hand, should recognize that there is a closer link between development assistance and national interest than they would care to admit. Consequently, they need to put more energy and resources into an approach more cognisant of this linkage.

Once differing assumptions have been discussed and overcome, both actors might be able to agree on a new division of labor to tackle challenges in the Middle East. Europe could increase its capacity in assisting domestic reform efforts. Most US policy makers agree that Europeans could be more proactive in the Arab world and beyond. European internal foreign policy coordination also remains a key issue as the United States attempts to streamline policies with its trans-Atlantic partner. As long as Europeans fail to find appropriate mechanisms to consolidate their foreign policy, the positive influence they could have on the region will remain unrealized.

A Battle of Ideas?

Beyond grand common strategies, the European Union and the United States could serve as inspirational models to others who would like to live in similar conditions and enjoy the same opportunities. In this regard, the election of Barrack Obama as US President was inspirational for many Arabs and was received very favorably in the region. Although some tend to believe that democracy is a form of government that follows a natural trajectory, democracy is not on the horizon for many parts of the world. As Thomas Caruthers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace notes, "for the first time in many years, there are almost no more democracies in the world at the end of a decade as there were at the beginning of it."The so-called battle of ideas still needs to be fought, and the United States and Europe are natural allies in this battle. The tone of engagement with the Arab world matters. Instead of perceiving the region only as a headache, the United States and Europe should focus on what they have in common with the Arab world. Radicals should not be allowed to make the gap between "us" and "them" deeper. Cultural exchanges, as well as dialogues on the relationship between religion and the state, should be supported and extended to wider parts of society.

There have been very positive signs from within the region, whereby Arab leaders have initiated regional initiatives to deal with the region's challenges. Take, for example, Turkey's involvement in the peace process, Egyptian efforts to mediate and promote a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, and recent activities by the Gulf States to address the stalemate in Lebanon. Putting more energy into supporting regional initiatives and security frameworks instead of just suggesting external (and so far largely unsuccessful) solutions would be a noteworthy option for the European Union and the United States.

There seems to be a growing recognition that local partnership is the key to success in the region. The recent establishment of the Union for the Mediterranean's co-presidency (the EU and Mediterranean partner countries) is a promising sign. Rather than promoting themselves as powers in the region, the European Union and the United States should listen more carefully to what people in the region actually want and what kind of assistance they need.

Assisting Domestic Reform Efforts

Political and economic reforms could solve many of the region's deficits and challenges. Although it might not be a priority for the Obama administration (perhaps because it will be difficult to achieve success in the short-term), this issue will have to be dealt with. Europe has the potential to share some of the burden and increase its efforts in areas where the United States remains simply too unpopular or has not found the right tools or tone to deal with the region's challenges. Although Europe has a lot to offer, it needs to become a more unified and proactive actor to have a meaningful impact in the Middle East. To overcome the obstacles to transatlantic cooperation, both sides need to foster an honest dialogue on long-term interests in the region and how to achieve these goals. Through better coordination, Europe can help the Obama administration improve the US record in the Middle East. Europe and the United States need to agree on a common rationale and division of labor. One option is to place greater emphasis on the recently emerging regional initiatives. Another option is to provide a forum where the US can contribute without dominating the proceedings. Political and economic reform in the region is in the transatlantic, national, and humanitarian interests of the United States and the European Union. Supporting domestic endeavours for reform presents numerous challenges that can be better shouldered and overcome if the United States and the European Union work together.

Zoé Nautré is a visiting fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP). Previously, she served as a visiting researcher at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University.

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